This is the home of a veteran. The Iwo Jima statue next to the driveway gives it away. War memorabilia fill the inside of the house. Photos of his brothers in their uniforms, thank-you presents from former soldiers and small tokens of wartime cover the walls. Once a drill instructor and gunnery sergeant, living on base and fighting on the front lines, Percy “Gunny” Brandon now lives life at a slower pace.
Today, after serving in the Marine Corps for 20 years, Gunny lives on a quiet piece of land in McMinnville, Ore. He’s a celebrity of sorts in this area, as well as in parts of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland. His autobiography, Gunny, written about his service and the four Purple Hearts he received, has contributed to his well-known status.
From a young age, Gunny never doubted that he wanted to enlist.
“I wanted to be a Marine just like my brother was,” says Gunny. “Even knowing he died and was killed in the war and all that, I still was going to be a Marine.”
His brother, Pfc. Howard S. Brandon, was killed in action on Iwo Jima on March 9, 1945. Gunny spent his time in the military trying to fill his brother’s shoes.
Soon after turning 17 on June 19, 1952, Gunny hitchhiked his way from Grande Ronde, Ore., to Salem to enlist. His mother had reservations about his joining at such a young age, considering four Brandons had already died in combat. Nevertheless, Gunny says he was on a ship bound for Korea on his 18th birthday.
His next two years were spent in Japan and Korea. After that, Gunny moved several times to different duty stations. After working security in Kodiak, Alaska, he returned home, not knowing what to do with his time.
“I was out about 20-something days and got to thinking, Man, this is stupid. It’s the middle of winter. I’ve got no job. I was collecting $14 every other week of unemployment, but that’s all I was doing,” explains Gunny.
In the pool hall one day, he ran into a Marine recruiter. After learning Gunny was no longer enlisted, the recruiter encouraged him to rejoin.
“He told me if I enlisted, I would get $100 a year. If I enlisted for six years, I would get $600. That sounded pretty good to me,” Gunny said. Immediately after the conversation, Gunny went back into the service.
He reported to San Francisco for duty and was a prison guard for the Marine Corps. Following his time in Northern California, he was relocated to Camp Pendleton in San Diego where he once again joined the infantry. After about four years, he received orders to board ship, and traveled to the Caribbean, Mediterranean and the Panama Canal.
“When I came back [to the United States], orders came through for drill instructor at Parris Island, and I wanted to be a drill instructor more than I wanted to be anything, so I went there and made the interview, went through school and everything and was assigned,” explains Gunny.
He spent three years as a Marine drill instructor, working with a total of 14 platoons. Then the Vietnam War changed things.
“Things just happened a lot faster in Vietnam. Troops were shorthanded. They needed all the people they could get, especially leaders,” says Gunny.
After leaving Parris Island, “I came through Oregon long enough to leave my wife and three kids here in McMinnville,” he says. “Four days later, I was on a plane flying to Okinawa.”
By this time, Gunny had been selected for gunnery sergeant. That’s how he got the nickname “Gunny.”
“The gunny is kind of the negotiator between the enlisted men and the officers. You run the company. You keep everything going smooth,” he says.
He was always on the front line in battle, never expecting his troops to do anything he didn’t do alongside them. He ended up with enough battle wounds to earn four Purple Hearts and survived two serious concussions. Over his 20 years of service, he was hospitalized for a total of three years.
Now, at 77 years old, Gunny lives with shrapnel inside parts of his body. He has no spleen, only one lung, one properly working eye and a multitude of scars on his stomach.
“You wonder why you’re born with that stuff if the body can function without it,” says Gunny, chuckling. Now fighting bone marrow cancer, Gunny is
proving he has a few battles left in him.
The phrase “Once a Marine, always a Marine” pretty much sums up Gunny’s life. Even though he’s been out of the service for close to 50 years, he maintains a close relationship with many other soldiers.
“Marines are like pack rats,” he explains. They stick together, watch out for each other and support each other even after they have returned home and gone their separate ways. Over the years, Gunny has received countless thank-you gifts and heartfelt notes from soldiers he instructed, guided and protected in the field.
Gunny now lives alone on seven acres of property. His wife of over 50 years passed away in 2008, and he has since opened up his land to veterans in need. He has several small houses behind his garage that he rents to veterans needing support. In his free time, he makes war memorabilia out of cement, wood and other materials to commemorate those who fought alongside him.
His attitude and sheer determination have made Gunny successful at everything he has done in life.
“I’m a driver, and I always have been, even in combat. I had to be first at everything I did,” Gunny says. “I’ve done a lot for being a high school dropout.”
Writing: Kelly Gess
Photograph: Allison Journey